Immigrant visas, commonly called green cards, allow the individual to live and work in the United States permanently and ultimately lead to U.S. citizenship if that is the goal of the individual. While other avenues are possible, the two main ways to obtain green cards are through a family member or through employment.
Family-Based Immigrant Visas
Individuals who can immigrate based on a close family member are categorized into two main groups: immediate relatives and preference relatives. Immediate relatives are spouses, minor children and parents of U.S. citizens (USC). Preference relatives are adult single children, married children and brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and spouses, minor children and adult single children of legal permanent residents (LPR). Immediate relatives do not have to wait in line to get permanent resident status (i.e., a green card). On the other hand, preference relatives have to wait until it is their turn before they are eligible for their green card. The length of waiting time is based on three factors: the preference category, the priority date (i.e., the date their immigrant visa petition is filed with immigration), and the country of citizenship of the foreign national. Preference categories are:
- 1st Preference – unmarried, adult children of USC
- 2A Preference – spouses and minor children of LPR
- 2B Preference – adult, single children of LPR
- 3rd Preference – married children of USC
- 4th Preference – brothers and sisters of USC
The approximate waiting periods for each preference category may be seen in the Visa Bulletin, the monthly publication of the Department of State that may be found here.
Employment-Based Immigrant Visas
It is also possible to get your green card through employment. There are several levels of employment visas: first preference (extraordinary individuals, outstanding professors/researchers and multinational executives and managers); second preference (individuals having an advanced degree and exceptional individuals); third preference (professionals, skilled workers and other workers); fourth preference (religious workers) and fifth preference (investors). As a general rule, individuals seeking green cards through employment must go through three steps: the labor certification application, which tests the labor market; the immigrant visa petition to show that the foreign national has the qualifications of the job, and the adjustment of status application (or, alternatively, consulate processing) to change the foreign national’s status from nonimmigrant to immigrant. Exceptions to the labor certification application requirement are first preference workers and religious workers. Special accommodations to the labor certification application requirement are allowed for workers in fields of national interest, nurses and physical therapists.
Other possible avenues for permanent resident status are individuals who have won the annual diversity lottery, been granted asylum or refugee status, or who fall into one of immigration’s special categories (i.e., special immigrant juveniles, certain employees of the Panama Canal Zone, certain employees of the U.S. government overseas, former U.S. citizens reapplying for citizenship).